Volunteers work to reinforce the Valley City levee as the Illinois River continues to rise on April 25. The Illinois River crested at 26.6 feet at Valley City on April 27. However, drainage district officials continue to monitor the levee for boils and seepage as the levee becomes saturated from almost two weeks of high river levels. The volunteer effort at Valley City drew between 150 and 200 volunteers throughout the sandbagging effort, which started April 21.
Volunteers work to reinforce the Valley City levee as the Illinois River continues to rise on April 25. The Illinois River crested at 26.6 feet at Valley City on April 27. However, drainage district officials continue to monitor the levee for boils and seepage as the levee becomes saturated from almost two weeks of high river levels. The volunteer effort at Valley City drew between 150 and 200 volunteers throughout the sandbagging effort, which started April 21.
PERRY, Ill. — For Lane Wiese, a commissioner of the Valley City drainage district in rural Pike County, the sight of the Illinois River lapping at the top of the Valley City levee was personal.

“My wife and I have a tremendous amount at risk down here,” said Wiese as volunteers filled sandbags for the fourth day and the Illinois River continued to rise.

“We have about 1,500 acres of productive farmland we would lose. We have one home and a little over 200,000 bushels of grain storage,” he said.

While most of those whose homes were threatened by the rising waters of the Illinois River packed up and left as the river moved within striking distance of the top of the levee, at least one resident stayed put.

That was Wiese’s son, Nathan, 23, who lives in the home that his parents bought and lived in for 22 years. Nathan, his dad said, decided to stay in his house with his dog and two cats.

“A true muskrat never leaves his den,” Wiese joked about his son’s decision to remain.

But while the river overtopping the levee would mean a property loss for him and his family, Wiese pointed out that for the residents of nearby communities who rely on wells for their drinking water, the consequences of losing the flood fight could be more lasting.

“If that levee would overtop, the city of Griggsville could lose its water supply,” he said.

Wiese was on the scene again on April 25, just a day after having emergency surgery on his arm, to help supervise the installation of two repaired pumps in the drainage district’s pumphouse.

As volunteers worked to get the two pumps up and running to move water from overflowing drainage ditches into the river, other volunteers continued the massive effort to fill and place sandbags to reinforce and raise sections of the Valley City levee.

“No levee is perfectly level, but the water is always level. There’s always going to be a low spot somewhere, so we have to build that up to above the water level,” Wiese said.

The Valley City levee is about eight miles long. Work to reinforce the levee against the rising Illinois River started as river levels and rain forecasts began to add up.

As the river rose over the weekend of April 20-21, Wiese said drainage district officials monitored reports.

“We started Monday. We went from the Corps of Engineers forecast. When the river level got to within four feet of our levee, we patiently observed. When it got to within three feet, then we put out the phone calls and went to radio and TV, requesting volunteers to fill sandbags. That’s when the process started, when we knew the crest was going to be within three feet of the top of the levee,” he said.

For Richard Myers, chairman of the Valley City drainage district, the thought that the river would overtop the levee and spill into homes and onto farmland became a real possibility.

“It was coming up about two feet a day, and then they started giving the forecast of where it was going to go to. At one time, I thought we cannot possibly make it because it was going to go higher than it had ever been,” he said.

The job to reinforce the levee is a time-consuming task and a dangerous one.

Sand, dredged earlier from the very river now in flood, is brought in by truckloads. Volunteers then begin filling sandbags, while others start on the task of building up the levee in various low spots.

“We laid close to three-quarters of a mile of sandbags in a 4-3-2-1 pattern, a pyramid. We lay plastic down first on top of the levee. We’ll have two sandbags on the edge of the plastic and two sandbags on the grass part of the levee. What that does is seal the plastic to the grass with the two bags on it,” Wiese said.

“The other two bags reinforce that to keep it from sliding. Then you build up your pyramid and you wrap the plastic on the river side up and over and seal it to the land side, so you’ve got a sealed wall against the water.”

Earlier in the week, cold temperatures and a day of steady rain combined to make a dangerous job — volunteers work within steps of a fast-moving river that is flooded to depths of 12 to 14 feet — even more hazardous.

“On Tuesday, it rained all day. We gathered at the meeting spot to go over our game plan of what we wanted to do for that day. I told the volunteers it was totally up to them, I would really appreciate if they would go, but I was not going to tell them to go out there in that type of weather. Every one of them went back out,” Wiese said.

Myers said the consequences of the levee overtopping would be far-reaching and costly.

“It would take some homes, and the floodwaters usually destroy any buildings or grain bins. Then you have debris, you can get a lot of sand deposited, your drainage ditches fill up and you have quite a cleanup process. There are a lot of reasons why you try as hard as you can not to let that happen,” Myers said.

The call for volunteers extended beyond the Valley City drainage district to the drainage districts up and down the Illinois River.

At its height, the volunteer effort in the Valley City drainage district consisted of close to 200 people a day.

“We’ve been feeding between 170 and 220 people a day,” Wiese said. “It’s all volunteer help, and I cannot compliment our volunteers enough.”

Volunteers came from local farms, local communities and agribusiness and included inmates at the Illinois Department of Corrections work camps at Pittsfield and Clayton.

“We were very fortunate to have the people from the work camps. They were really good workers,” Myers said. “If we didn’t have them, I don’t think we would have had enough help to fill the sandbags.”

Local agribusinesses stepped up to lend paid manpower, vehicles and trailers to help with the sandbagging effort.

“All of the agribusinesses in this area sent people. It’s naturally a large agricultural area, so all of our ag suppliers are down here. Two Rivers FS brought people down. They’re paying their people to be down here. Logan AgriService in Griggsville, a large ag supplier, he had people down here on his payroll. Bader Agricultural Service from Meredosia has had people down here. Country Companies Insurance has had people down here,” Wiese said, listing some of the businesses who assisted.

“We just can’t say enough about everyone who has helped. I just can’t thank these volunteers enough for all that they’ve done.”

The Illinois River crested at Valley City on April 27 at 26.6 feet.

With the sandbagging finished, Wiese said officials would be patrolling the levee to check for any leaks, seepage or boils, holes in the ground where water can bubble up, sometimes bringing levee material with it and thus threatening the integrity of the levee.

“We will keep patrolling the levee looking for boils and seeps. We’ve got to keep an eye on those,” Wiese said.

Myers expressed cautious optimism that the sandbagging efforts would keep the river back.

“We had a lot of good help and got a lot of sandbags on, so we feel good about it now if something funny doesn’t happen,” he said. “We think we can hold it back if we don’t get any more heavy rains.”

Wiese said officials in drainage districts up and down the Illinois River will be keeping a close eye on both the river and levees as river levels recede.

“They’re only looking at a fall of approximately two-tenths to three-tenths per day for the next few days, so we’re going to be looking at a week to 10 days of high water yet,” he said.